BENNINGTON, VT. >> Watching David Joseph as Charlie Chaplin playfully mime shaving a customer in a recreation of a scene from his 1940 film, "The Great Dictator," you would think that playwright John Morogiello had this extraordinary Berkshires-based actor in mind when he wrote "The Consul, the Tramp and America's Sweetheart." He didn't. No matter. Joseph inhabits this role so completely and so comfortably, it's as if one of Hollywood's greatest legendary figures has found renewed life.
The play — which is having its world premiere in a well-acted, smoothly directed production at Oldcastle Theatre Company — is set in the reception room for and the office of Mary Pickford (played by Elizabeth Aspenlieder with a penetrating blend of fiery assertion and steely determination, tempered by compassion and respect for a dear friend, admired colleague and business partner) who has given up acting to form United Artists in partnership with Chaplin and her ex-husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
It is 1938 and Chaplin is about to begin shooting his first full sound film, "The Great Dictator," a devastating political satire about Adolf Hitler that Chaplin wrote, scored, produced, starred in and directed. When word about the project leaks out in a Hollywood gossip column, the revelation draws the attention of the German consul to Hollywood, George Gyssling (played by Paul Romero with commanding and appropriately chilling bombast and bullying), who shows up at Pickford's office determined to pressure her into dropping the project.
As played by Romero, Gyssling is ruthless, unyielding, contemptuous, arrogant in executing his mission. He wields a potent club — money; the bottom line. For United Artists, as was the case throughout Hollywood at that time, Germany was a lucrative market. With pro-Fascist sentiment running as an undercurrent in America, Hollywood already was nervous about including any kind of material that could be deemed anti-German in its movies. The fear that movies deemed offensive by Hitler could result in choking off the German market altogether sent chills through Hollywood's business-minded board rooms.
The central debate in "The Consul, the Tramp and America's Sweetheart" is between art and commerce with two close friends, artists and business partners on opposite sides. And since we know the film was made and released in 1940, after roughly 600 days of shooting and post-production — picking up five 1941 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor and original screenplay — Morogiello suggests just how Pickford and Chaplin bridged their divide with a combination of clear and clever business-thinking and a convenient political deus ex-machina.
"The Consul " also is concerned with matters of principles — how we weigh and value principles; how we determine just how far we are we willing to go to sacrifice one set of principles for others, even if it means creating collateral damage.
From women attempting to crash Hollywood's glass ceiling to his gratuitous insertion of the powerful signature speech from "The Great Dictator" about love, human dignity and decency, and the corrosive effects of divisiveness and hatred, Morogiello leaves few ideological stones unturned.
Out of the blue, Morogiello also plays fast and loose with structure and narrative, eventually shifting the play's focus to a first-person perspective from the viewpoint of Pickford's secretary, Miss Hollombe (an eager and enthusiastic Lori Vega) as if the events unfolding before us are episodes from her memoir. As she narrates, others on stage freeze in their positions until she's done. While Hollombe does provide some historical context amid her quips and observations, she becomes, nonetheless, an intrusive presence, especially down the play's home stretch, who does little to enhance the storytelling.
What does enhance the storytelling in this production is the polish and clarity in the performances around her, not the least of them Joseph's Chaplin, as superbly choreographed — physically and emotionally — a non-dance theater performance as you are likely to see.
Joseph evokes Chaplin without imitating him, especially in an origins sequence that Chaplin executes in impromptu fashion as he sits Miss Hollombe in a chair in Pickford's office and, as his poor Jewish barber will do in "The Great Dictator," begins "shaving" her face to the accompaniment of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5. It's a moment of pure genius that Joseph executes in a manner that, while it channels Chaplin, is completely his own. The moment is typical of a childlike, impish spontaneity that Joseph captures so well in a portrayal that also is mindful of Chaplin's responsible adult side — the artist in him; the idealist; and, yes, the pragmatic, resourceful businessman who finds a way out of his dispute with Pickford.
This is the third play by Morogiello to have been produced at Oldcastle. While it is, by far, his most interesting, it also is hurt by its own preciosity. How fortunate to have on Oldcastle's stage a cast that is, for the most part, so practised in the art of illusion.
What: "The Consul, the Tramp and America's Sweetheart" by John Morogiello. Directed by Eric Peterson
With: Elizabeth Aspenlieder, David Joseph, Lori Vega, Paul Romero
Who: Oldcastle Theatre Company
Where: 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
When: Now through Sept. 18. Evenings — Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $37 (students $10)
How: 802-447-0564; oldcastletheatre.org